Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan

According to my wife, who has taken ballet lessons and danced en pointe at the Boston School of Ballet as well as at a school in San Francisco, Darren Aronofsy’s Black Swan establishes an authentic world of ballet and the obsessive drive for perfection that is part of that world. She identified with the obsessive-compulsive attention to the preparation of multiple pointe shoes, as depicted in the film: taking out the sole padding; sewing on the elastic band; burning the ends of the satin ribbons. She also notes the typical avoidance of food. In one scene, Nina (Natalie Portman) eats half a grapefruit and a poached egg for breakfast; in another scene she recoils from a huge cake her mother has bought to celebrate her getting the lead role in Swan Lake.

Within this world, three characters pose conflicts for Nina as she grapples with excruciating pain, deep-seated envy, tormenting doubt, and haunting paranoia while rehearsing the antithetical roles of the Swan Queen and the Black Swan. Nina has no trouble performing the movements of Odette, the Swan Queen, but she struggles with her interpretation of the evil Black Swan, responding sensitively to the criticisms of her exacting director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who wants her to let herself go and delve deep into her soul. In fact, he suggests that part of her problem is that she seems disinterested in sex. He forces her to kiss him; he suggests that she masturbate. Later, she tries to let herself go during a sensual nightclub escapade with a rival dancer.

But the challenge of performing both Odette and Odile, under a demanding, glowering director who stirs her feelings of inadequacy, is compounded by other conflicts. Nina fears the competition of her alternate dancer, the earthy Lily (Mila Kunis) who has no trouble letting herself go, and who seems to get more praise from Thomas. Nina also feels guilty that Thomas’s previous star, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) has been cast aside. This guilt intensifies when Beth ends up in the hospital after stepping suicidally into traffic. Nina also fears that she will end up just like Beth, cast aside after her prime dancing days are over. On top of all this conflict, Nina lives with her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), a smothering, domineering woman obsessed with Nina’s success. Hershey gives a chilling performance as Erica lays on the guilt, controls her daughter, even sleeps in her daughter’s room at night.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

True Grit (2010) - The Coens' Production

As I write about the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, it is hard to set aside my deep emotional attachment to the 1969 adaptation of the same novel, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, though I will review the Coens' film without making comparisons. Back in 1969, True Grit played for months at the movie theater where I worked as an usher, and I probably saw it at least thirty times. Later, on VHS and DVD, I saw it at least twenty more times, introducing it to my wife, who loved the movie too and considered Mattie Ross to be one of her favorite characters in literature and film. On top of that, John Wayne had always been my favorite actor. I grew up watching his earlier movies on television, and I saw most of his later movies as they came out in theaters, starting with The Alamo in 1960, all the way to The Shootist in 1977. Having seen the 1969 adaptation as many times as I have, I can recite much of the dialogue by heart, and many of its eminently quotable lines became useful catchphrases that my wife and I would fit into day-to-day situations. “Look at him grin. He’ll cheat you.”

First of all, I am entirely grateful to filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen for making a Western, my favorite film genre, without nonsense or excessive pretense.

As does the 1969 version, the Coens’ True Grit faithfully sticks to the dialogue in Portis’s brief, dialogue-laden novel. For me, seeing the new movie was like seeing a new performance of a famous play. You might go to see Hamlet, for example, and it’s directed by another director, and it might be starring Laurence Olivier or Christopher Plummer or Jude Law, and although it might have a new look or tone, the lines are the same. You might not like the performers or the director’s interpretation as well as a previous production, but you still like the play because it’s the same story. Since so much of the dialogue in the Coens’ film is the same as in the 1969 version, I felt a warm feeling hearing those very familiar lines again, and I knew exactly what the next line would be, and like one of those staunch Tolkien enthusiasts whose passion for The Lord of the Rings encouraged Peter Jackson to adapt the novel into three epic-length films, I was disappointed when some of the great lines and scenes from the novel, kept in the 1969 film, were missing from the new adaptation.

In True Grit (2010), a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires a ruthless, one-eyed marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to ride into the Indian Territory on the trail of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer. As Mattie’s righteous determination pushes Rooster and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) onward, the hard-drinking old gunman and the morally upright, money-wise little girl develop a touching father-daughter relationship. In the end, Rooster Cogburn will do anything for Mattie Ross, and we see this clearly in the film’s most touching, most exciting sequence when Cogburn must get Mattie to a doctor. Both of them mounted on Little Blackie, Mattie’s beloved pony, they ride back the way they came, and we see their progress through Mattie’s feverish eyes. We see the dead bodies in the clearing; the winter-bare trees; and the brilliant stars overhead. After Little Blackie is ridden to death, Rooster Cogburn nearly dies carrying Mattie in his arms.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Old Grid, New Grid - Tron (1982) and Tron: Legacy (2010)

Until recently, my experience with the original Tron (1982) had been watching it once through on VHS and then showing my students the lightcycle chase and the tanks sequence multiple times as examples of early CGI. Then, in anticipation of the new Tron: Legacy, I dug out the old VHS tape and watched Tron again, having a good chuckle at Jeff Bridges’s hyper, hot dog portrayal of computer programmer Kevin Flynn, but escaping totally into the otherworld the film establishes. Though both films feature merely serviceable performances that generate little emotion, and the writing tends toward comic-bookish camp, they both succeed at creating fascinating worlds that take the viewer on unique adventures even though the vast difference in visual quality spans the entire history of CGI.

Despite the extreme contrast in CGI, I can still enjoy the world created in the original Tron, an effectively established otherworld where “user” Kevin Flynn (Bridges), Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), and Crom (Peter Jurasik) try to avoid de-rezzing as they cross a world of line and angles to the portal that can whisk Kevin back to the real world. Here we follow Kevin’s attempts to survive a disc-throwing battle and a lightcycle contest, and elude tanks and H-shaped shuttles. One of the most memorable moments in Tron comes when Kevin, Tron, and Crom refresh themselves at a pool of crystal-clear energy-water. Bridges’s thirst for the invigorating water evokes a vivid sense of wonder here. You want to reach out and try some of it yourself! As a credit to Tron, this scene is more effective than the episode in Legacy when Kevin, Sam (Kevin’s son, played by Garrett Hedlund), and Quorra (Olivia Wilde) sit down to a meal of … what? Cybernetic roast pig? What they eat is neither interesting nor vividly evoked. (Nevertheless, the dinner scene in Legacy is a beautiful tribute to Kubrick as the dinner table and the white floor crisscrossed with black lines call to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey mise-en-scène.) Also notable in the first Tron is the pursuit of the “Solar Sailer” and its nifty crossover to an alternate path on the Grid. The Grid adventures are the best part of Tron, and it’s a brash disappointment when Jeff returns to a low-budget 1980s real world with shaggy hairstyles and horridly huge glasses.

Twenty-eight years later, Tron: Legacy benefits from incredible advances in CGI, (while it gains little from 3D), and takes you into a world of breadth and plummeting depth, a dark, sunless realm of brooding structures where programs do the bidding of CLU (a pasty-faced, mealy-mouthed CGI version of a younger Jeff Bridges). Here, old Kevin Flynn (Bridges) has gone guru, and his Zen jargon fits right in with the comic book tone. “Radical!” No matter. Your eyes are too busy feasting on the visuals to be able to pay much attention to words. As in the first film, after the thankfully brief scenes in the real world, the Grid gradually absorbs you as Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son, moves through its various landscapes. As Sam Flynn, Garrett Hedlund is just as pasty-faced and toothy as the CGI version of Jeff Bridges. He’s utilitarian in his role, but the characters he meets are more interesting. Sam’s father has turned into an old-fashioned hippie, fighting against CLU’s attempt to form all programs into a vast robotic army, and Michael Sheen plays Castor/ Zuse (I never understood the significance of the revelation that he is Zuse), the sleazy proprietor of the End of the World Club.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jaws Memories (1975)

Here is my contribution to the Spielberg Blogathon sponsored by Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly at Medfly Quarantine. Enjoy the post and check out other contributions to the blogathon.

Back in 1975 I found myself in Philadelphia for a three-day orientation program before shipping off to three years in the Peace Corps in Morocco. I had grown up in California, and this was my first experience with an eastern city. I saw the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, with John Huston sitting on the steps, taking a break from filming a documentary. Seeking a last chance to see an American movie before traveling overseas, I happened upon a matinee of Jaws playing downtown. The director’s name was vaguely familiar. Oh, yeah, that’s right; I remember watching and loving the TV-movie Duel. Give it a try, I thought. The poster sure made it look like fun.

Inside the vast cinema, I slipped into a seat and watched the ending of The Eiger Sanction (that was back in the days of double features). Then Jaws began.

The music plays, and you’re taken right in. Very clever! I found the opening scene gruesome. You never see the shark, but with all of Chrissie’s desperate thrashing around, with all her horrid shrieks, your imagination vividly pictures what is happening under the surface of the water.

As serendipity would have it, I now live on Cape Cod and have spent a lot of time on Martha’s Vineyard. But back in 1975 the locations in Jaws were totally alien to me. Having grown up near the Pacific and the beaches at Half Moon Bay, I was totally surprised to find tranquil beaches where you could swim without having to surmount huge waves. How quaint! And how quaint were those narrow streets and shingled buildings in Edgartown, which stands in for the town of Amity.

Throughout the first half of the film, Spielberg continues the pattern of revealing the shark sparingly. He builds suspense without showing the shark, but the shark’s power and menace are clearly established. The beach sequence is a superb mixture of gimmicks: the fat woman walking into the water; the dog that goes missing; old Harry gliding through the water with his bathing cap; the sudden squeal as a guy raises his girlfriend on his shoulders – and all of this seen through Chief Brody’s eyes, his vision interrupted by passing vacationers. It’s all a tease, and Spielberg is a master of the visual tease. When the shark attack comes, it’s an abrupt geyser of blood. Brody, fixed to the beach by his paradoxical fear of the water, is transfixed. “We know about you, Chief.” “That’s some bad hat, Harry.” Spielberg employs Hitchcock’s Vertigo effect to draw the transfixed Brody toward the horror. Why not! The whole sequence is a feast of Hitchcockian devices. Oh, and Alex’s Kintner’s mother is superbly cast. She looks exactly like a former teaching colleague of mine who lives on Cape Cod.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

One Out of Three: Love and Other Drugs, The Tourist, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Love and Other Drugs, directed by Edward Zwick, bored me more than any movie I’ve seen this year. Its insincere, manipulative use of Parkinson’s Disease as a topical focus; its tedious jokes about Viagra and erections; and its forcedly crass sexual situations, most of them involving Josh Gad trying to be the resident Jonah Hill, emulating the crudeness of Superbad without the humor, do nothing for this story about a wastrel playboy/drug salesman, Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), who reaches a pivotal point in his aimless life when he falls in love with Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway), a young woman suffering stage one Parkinson’s. While Gyllenhaal looks handsome in suits, Hathaway pushes her don’t-say-love flippancy and coyness to an irritating degree. The film’s climactic scene in which Jamie convinces Maggie “It’s you!” works like a parody of the worst of Nicholas Sparks. You don’t believe you’re hearing what you’re hearing, but you are.

The Tourist, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others) is about Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. That's about it. In the opening scene, Jolie struts haltingly along Paris streets in ridiculous high heels. She reaches a posh café where Interpol detectives have her under surveillance because she is sexy and because Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) could lead police to her lover, a man who absconded with two billion dollars.

Johnny Depp plays Frank Tupelo, a long-haired, mild-mannered math teacher from Wisconsin whom Elise picks up so everyone will believe he is her thieving lover. In Venice, Jolie continues to strut in high heels, dresses in sexy dresses, and cruises the canals in motor launches. Meanwhile, Depp, looking pasty-faced and not as sexy as Jolie, utters about a dozen lines throughout the whole film. In fact, he’s so terse he hardly seems to be in the movie.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Little Worlds: The Best in Art Direction: 2010

As I did last year, apropos of my blog’s title, I hereby offer a tribute to the best in art direction for films released in 2010. As I said in last year’s version of this post, I love the use of drawing, painting, models, constructed sets, and CGI to create an imaginative cinematic world that transports the viewer to another place. It might be a world that no one can ever visit in reality. Or it might be a real place that you can visit on your own, though the cinematic rendering of it reveals details and textures we might never perceive beyond its presentation on film.

Considering the 61 movies I've seen in theaters this year, I was a little disappointed with the art direction in comparison with previous years. No one built the Alamo or Troy or drew up an imaginary world as fantastic as Pandora.

Nevertheless, here are my favorite little worlds from 2010, presented in order in which I saw them, and I well might add Tron: Legacy, this year’s Yuletide CGI fest, to make this list an even ten.

High Noon Apocalypse from The Book of Eli

Making a post-apocalyptic film? Just film it in some place like Nevada and your work's done for you. But this movie wants to be a post-apocalyptic Western, so when Eli wanders into town off the desert, we find ourselves in a suitably dismal hamlet that nicely calls to mind the Westerns of Sergio Leone. Out in the middle of nowhere, a lone house is home to a kickass aged couple, and a CGI rendering of San Francisco features the Golden Gate Bridge missing its middle.

The Island in Your Mind from Shutter Island

The bleak wooden dock, that formidable gate, the institutional grounds, the damp corridors, the cliffs, the tower – all of it could be real, but all of it brilliantly evokes what’s going on in Teddy’s mind. Rats swarming over damp rocks, cliffs jutting into the gray sea, the look of this film is a major achievement.

Alice in Tim Burtonland from Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's vision of Wonderland is full of variety - from an overgrown garden that's a whimsically mad jungle to a wall embraced by thorns to a countryside that looks like it's been hit by an atomic bomb where you wouldn't be surprised to see a shabbily dressed father and his son pushing a squeaky shopping cart. Palaces and tea tables in the middle of the woods, the world of Lewis Carroll is a feast for Burton's imagination and a feast for our eyes.

Vikingland from How to Train Your Dragon

Those little huts on the hilly seacoast are toast when the dragons attack (love how the dragons carry off the bleating sheep), but the thick forest is full of wonder, the little canyon with the pond constitute a magical location in which a Viking boy can meet a dragon and learn how to train it. There’s texture and memorable depth to this colorful little world.

Ozark Boonies from Winter’s Bone

You feel the winter in your bones just looking at Ree’s shabby log cabin with the trampoline out front for the kids. During her quest to find her father, Ree visits places just as bleak or bleaker, and set decoration does a great job with interiors, making it clear these are the kind of people who think nothing of putting a gun on the lazy Susan next to the coffee mugs.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Oops." - 127 Hours

In Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, my favorite moment comes when Aron Ralston (James Franco), his right forearm pinned between a rock and cliff, performs for his camcorder, conducting a mock talk show interview with himself. In actuality or in a hallucination, Aron berates himself for being the big hero. “I can do everything on my own,” he says, and the film cuts to shots of Aron leaving work without telling his co-worker where he’s going and rushing out of his apartment without answering a call from his mother. When the mock interview zeroes in on Aron’s tragic act of hubris – not telling anyone that he was venturing solo into rarely frequented Blue John Canyon in Utah – Aron looks dejectedly into the camera, body slumped, eyes forlorn. “Oops,” he utters weakly. Here, Franco’s eyes skillfully register how radically he has screwed up and how he has wronged others by being an outdoor isolationist who has alienated himself from his family, his friends, and a woman who loved him (Clémence Poésy). In another great moment, we clearly see the seriousness of this “oops” in the best shot featured in any film this year. Aron has just fallen into the narrow slit and gotten his arm pinned by the boulder. Desperately, he calls out to the two female hikers, Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), he had recently left. The camera swiftly pulls out of the slit to an eagle’s-eye view of this distant crack lost in a vast wasteland of rock. Aron is all alone. Big “oops” indeed!

Boyle’s perfect little film is a riveting series of dramatic moments, linked seamlessly by flashy but meaningful montage editing, featuring imaginative cinematography that offers countless visual surprises: the lone bike chained to a tree; the interior of Aron’s plastic drinking bottle; an inside look at his exploratory blade touching bone. Montage suggests how Aron Ralston, the super-wired, outdoor-thrill junkie, the ideal model for a North Face or Eastern Mountain Sporting catalogue, is the kind of twenty-something dude with the time and money for outdoor adventure, the kind of guy who brings a fiercely self-competitive drive to a wilderness regarded as an awesome outdoor playground made just for him. Unfortunately for Aron, this sense of entitlement to what nature has to offer in the way of fun leads to an obliviousness to nature’s power to kill you.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the right place at the right time - The Next Three Days

The most satisfying thing about The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis’s modest gem of a suspense film, is that it delivers the action and escapism of a thriller, but it also orchestrates a contemplative, indie-toned first half that is a compelling examination of a complex hero. John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a college professor and an ordinary family man who, after pursuing every legal means to exonerate his wife for a murder he knows she did not commit, is pushed to the edge and decides to spring his wife from prison.

The Next Three Days plays thoughtfully through a first act in which John Brennan, the soft-spoken literature professor, transforms gradually into a not-so-mild-mannered, hard-bitten guy driven by a determination to free his wife. The film quietly traces his ups and downs as he interviews Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson in a stagey cameo appearance), an ex-con Internet celebrity famous for his many escapes from prison, buys a gun he doesn’t know how to load, risks shopping around for fake passports in the mean streets of Pittsburgh, braces himself for a bank robbery in order to finance the escape, and goes up against drug dealers to get ready cash.

Crowe does a masterful job of portraying John’s burgeoning determination. He uses his played-out glare to show this determination turn into monomania. His face goes unshaven, the scars from a beating linger long on his face (not vanishing after a few days as in some movies) as symbols of his descent into wrongdoing, and he shuffles along with a lack of agility that he might wish he had in order to carry out his plan.

Elizabeth Banks as Lara Brennan is equally effective as she portrays a woman for whom the deepest horror of incarceration is being separated from her young son. Banks gradually replaces her bright optimism in her early scenes with a harsh gloom compellingly shown in her unwashed hair and wan face, and when she shocks John with an admission of guilt, her eyes are coldly convincing. Meanwhile, John wants his wife back, but the motivation for his ruthless transformation is more about reuniting mother with son than with reuniting himself with his wife, and that’s what ensures that we’re on John’s side once the escape begins.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Action Weekend, Part II - Unstoppable

I rather like the action movies of Tony Scott. True Romance (1993), my favorite Tony Scott, is more than an action movie, but it ends with his signature bloodbath shootout. Enemy of the State (1998) ends with a similar shootout, and it begins with a thrilling pursuit of a hapless eyewitness of Federal skullduggery by government hitmen using high-tech surveillance. Man on Fire (2004) features a memorable Denzel Washington performance and an intense shootout when kidnappers abscond with Dakota Fanning. I also like the brash boldness of the scene in which Washington faces off a Mexican official and his carloads of body guards with a rocket launcher. Way back when, Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) included a hilarious demolition-derby vehicular chase, and The Fan (1996) blended gripping suspense with a classic De Niro psycho portrayal.

More recently Tony Scott delivered decent thrills in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009). He allowed Denzel Washington time to stretch his acting muscles on a quirky character who is not a cop, and he delivers some tense moments, but too much fooling around with shaky camera shots, jump cuts, and multiple 360 spins around characters cause too much distraction.

In Unstoppable Scott puts the restraints on the flashy affectations, and he even takes time for a contemplative shot of the sun rising into the clouds over a railway yard, perhaps a tribute to the working class heroes featured in this film, men who risk their lives on the job but also suffer lay-offs and forced retirement with half pay. That tribute, however, does not extend to the clotpoll whose negligence starts the ball rolling and sends Engine Triple-7 down the line without an engineer.

Without much ado, Scott allows the action to be truly unstoppable, and he pumps up the tension by raising the stakes to the limit. Not only is Engine Triple-7 pulling a long train, its air brakes are disconnected, and it’s traveling at 70 miles per hour. In addition, some of the freight cars are filled with highly combustible chemicals! Not only that but the train will be passing through little towns that could be obliterated by a toxic spill! On top of that, the train is heading for a notoriously sharp curve, too sharp of a curve to take at 70 mph! Oh, and the curve happens to be right next to a bunch of fuel storage tanks! Oh, and that’s right in the middle of a big town! Phew! We’re in trouble!

A U.S. Marine dangling from a helicopter can’t stop the speeding red demon. An engine backing into the front of Triple-7 can’t slow the monster down. So it devolves to experienced engineer Frank (Denzel Washington) and fledgling conductor Chris (Chris Pine) to pursue the train, “grab it by the tail,” and slow the mother down!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Action Weekend, Part I - Skyline

After a slow, poorly acted, poorly written beginning in which a 20-somethings couple, Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson), visit their high-rolling friend Terry (Donald Faison) and his chippies in a swanky crib in a high-rise apartment building in Venice, California, tension mounts as bolts of light shoot down from the sky, like in War of the Worlds (2005), and huge alien spacecraft that look like sculptures of metallic refuse, as in Independence Day and District 9 hover over the city, and if you look at the alien light for too long, you get all veiny and blotchy and turn sort of alien, as in District 9.

As squid-like mechanical drones (The Matrix) with probing tentacles (War of the Worlds) patrol the city, and after the huge aliencraft do alien-abduction on an industrial scale by vacuuming up the populace of L.A., the big dilemma for the dudes and dudettes hanging around Terry’s pad is should they stay put or make a break for it, and even the line, “I hate L.A.” falls flat.

The bickering slows things down even more, but then the U.S. Air Force arrives and we get dogfights as massive as something out of Independence Day and as cheesy as Dragon Wars.

Though the over-exposed, smoggy look of the film makes the opening scenes murky and like they’re out of focus – which is a daring thing to do for a low-budget movie that should at least offer in-focus images as an asset – that smoky look pays off in a nice aerial sweep over the vacuumed city as well as in the film’s signature shot in which Jarrod and Terry stand on the roof and see the awesome alien invasion panorama.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fun with Megamind

Seemed like the movie offerings had slumped into a lull this weekend on stormy Cape Cod. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours had gone exclusive on me and wasn’t playing here, and action-weekend with Unstoppable and Skyline starts this coming Friday. But I convinced my daughter to see Megamind with me, we both deemed it a worthwhile entertainment, and I genuinely laughed out loud a number of times.

This energetically paced animated Deconstruction of the superhero genre certainly gets the casting right. Brad Pitt voices Metroman, the vainglorious Superman-like superhero of Metrocity who struts like a rock star in front of his hero-worshiping populace. Will Ferrell voices Megamind, the rival superhero who has devoted his life to the pursuit of bad and who feels big regrets when he finally defeats Metroman. In live-action films, I have to say I can't stand Will Ferrell, but here his repertoire of voices shows genuine talent. Tina Fey is perfect voicing the perky, sassy, coy newscaster, Roxanne Ritchi; and Jonah Hill basically voices a cartoon version of his character from Superbad. Here he plays the nerdy cameraman whose crush on Roxanne drives him psychotic when Megamind tries to turn him into a good-doing superhero, Tighten, to replace Metroman.

Lots of fun is had with the superhero genre as Megamind flips the hierarchy. Megamind, the big blue-headed mastermind of evil must save the day while Metroman goes reclusive to escape from his responsibilities, growing a beard and turning to music in another of the continuing and already tiresome parodies of Joaquin Phoenix’s break from his acting career.

But there are parodies that work quite humorously here – including one of Marlon Brando in his Jor-El role from Superman: The Movie, and a nifty allusion to Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan – though I guess it comes off as kind of ominous.

When the duel between the insane Tighten and the well-meaning Megamind, aided by his henchman Minion (voice by David Cross): an alien piranha in a fish bowl, turns the city into a battleground, the CGI-exploding-buildings are as realistic as the CGI-exploding-buildings in a live-action feature. Though I’m not a big fan of CGI renderings of animated characters, which lean toward caricature more than whimsy, something subtle but amazing is done with Megamind’s poor-waif eyes and his little blue mouth that stretches and constricts when he misses his nemesis Metroman or when he is rejected by the object of his desire, Roxanne. Voiced by an actor I can't stand, Megamind becomes a rather endearing, memorable character, a big part of what makes Megamind a worthy addition to the growing list of successful animated features released this year.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Indie Aliens - Monsters

With a title like Monsters fixed to a movie about a desperate couple traveling through a zone “infected” by extraterrestrial life forms spread by a NASA deep space probe that broke up over northern Mexico, you would be right to expect a creature-feature, Aliens-like splatter-fest. Instead, what Gareth Edwards’s Monsters delivers is a contemplative character study with the atmosphere of an indie travel-pic like The Motorcycle Dairies, full of foreign sights framed by talented cinematography.

Like District 9 (2009), Monsters uses news-footage realism to depict an area of northern Mexico that has been turned into a war zone, but this time no one metamorphoses into an oversized grasshopper and does battle in robotic body armor like something out of Transformers. Here the news-footage realism, and the shots of the destruction eagerly taken by Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer on assignment, establish the look and tone of a PBS travel show about a war-torn country.

As jets scream overhead, and explosions thump in the distance, it feels like Kaulder and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of the magazine’s owner, could be wandering through Iraq. Demolished buildings, a whole flattened town, the wreckage of tanks and helicopters, all this makes it clear that the U.S. and Mexican forces have been battling nasty beasties, grown from glowing seedpods spread throughout the jungle like fungi.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Phone Call Hell - Buried

Buried starts out in darkness. We never see the ambush by Iraqi insurgents of the convoy that lands U.S. contractor/truck driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) in a box buried under the sand, held for ransom and coerced to make a damaging confessional video to be placed on YouTube. Paul wakes up in darkness, comes to a realization of his predicament by feeling the wooden walls around him, struggles in terror, and then lights a cigarette lighter to confirm the horror. Buried alive! Right there the film plays on anybody’s fear, and it’s hard not to be engaged.

The artful camerawork does more in this single setting than you’d think possible. The inevitable extreme close-ups capture Paul’s anguish and frenzy as the camera looks over his forehead, angles across his cheek, or frames his full face, grimy and bloody, from above. In addition, the camera follows Paul’s point of view, down the length of his body to the foot of his confines, and along the wooden surfaces as he looks for… what? In a wooden crate, what could you possibly look for that might help you escape? Yet, we would all look. Amazingly, the film also employs extreme long shots, pulling back to show Paul enclosed in an underground rectangle of blackness, or following the walls as they extend metaphorically into a deep mine shaft that traps him below.

I’m not a big fan of Ryan Reynolds, and I never thought of him as playing a rugged, desperate character, but here he does a passionate job, using a cell phone left by the insurgents to listen to their demands, but also to connect with anyone who might help him. For anyone who hates making phone calls – and that’s me – it’s a case of phone call hell. Think of the frustration we feel when put on hold to the accompaniment of mind-sapping background music or when we have to deal with a bureaucrat speaking with a tone of official insolence that holds not the slightest speck of sympathy. Now imagine calls like that when you’re buried in a box and running out of air, and you get a good idea of how the film builds tension with dark humor and situations we understand.

For a one-man, single-setting show starring Reynolds, supported by voices ranging from the son-of-a-bitch robotic monotone of his employer from the contracting company (Stephen Tobolowsky) and the British-accented compassion of the agent (Robert Paterson) in Iraq trying to find him, the story is gripping and Reynolds keeps things moving as much as he can within his box while the off-screen voices suggest offices in D.C. or a field agent pursuing leads in Iraq in a beat-up Land Rover.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Go ahead! Communicate with my dead mother!" - Clint Eastwood's Hereafter

Back in the 1983 one day I was supposed to be scouring the streets of San Francisco in search of a job, but I ended up in a movie theater on Van Ness where I took in a matinee double feature that included Brainstorm with Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken. Here, Walken plays Michael Brace, a scientist who has paired up with cantankerous scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) to develop a device that records what goes on in the brain. This is being picked up by a company that plans to record experiences and market the device as a way for people to jump out of an airplane or climb Mount Everest in the comfort of the living room. But the movie’s central theme is the hereafter, not virtual reality technology. When Lillian suffers a coronary, she straps on the headset and records her terminal experience. Much to the worry of wife Karen (Wood), Michael experiences Lillian’s journey into a bright realm of winged souls – impressive visual effects for the time – which proves that heaven exists!

I immediately thought of this entertaining sci-fi movie as I watched Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, which also strongly suggests there is an afterlife, or perhaps that’s what Eastwood and all people in their 80s would like to believe. Knowing that my mother, 88, wonders and worries about what death has in store for her – even though she has been a faithful Catholic all her life – it is clear that Eastwood has chosen a sensitive and thought-provoking topic to explore in a film that should come off as grave and cerebral, but instead achieves a few touching moments within a whole that is mostly silly.

In Hereafter Clint takes his turn at telling a Crash or Babel-like epic incorporating multiple storylines in international settings.

In Sri Lanka a vacationing French TV-journalist Marie LeLay (Cécile De France) barely survives the tsunami of 2004, and her near-death experience and visions of a bright place populated by shimmering figures of people launch her into an obsessive crusade to convince the world, by means of her rapidly produced book: Hereafter, that the afterlife exists.

In London, twin lads Marcus and Jason (both played alternately by George and Frankie McLaren) suffer the stress of working hard as adult children, covering for their drug-addicted mum in order to keep the workers from Social Welfare at bay. If this isn’t bad enough, Marcus’s world crumbles when his brother is struck and killed by a car. This leads Marcus to Google psychics who attest to being able to communicate with the dead. Marcus’s quest slimly ties in the whole fascination with communicating with the dead, or debunking these communications, that occupied famous 19th and 20th century figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini.

In San Francisco, the central character George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is hiding from the career he had made out of communicating with people’s deceased loved ones. George drives a forklift at C&H but has a passion for novelist Charles Dickens, whose novels show an obsession with death and a hopeful belief in life everlasting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Never Let Me Go

If Never Let Me Go is science fiction, it is that oddly British sort of science-fiction, begun by H.G. Wells, full of anachronistic contrasts, in which chaps fly to the moon or travel through time while other chaps play cricket and drink beer in pubs. Or perhaps it shares more similarities with British dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and A Handmaid’s Tale, in which the futuristic setting is merely a platform for the exploration of ideas, and the workings of that world are unimportant or vaguely explained. Whatever the case might be, Never Let Me Go takes science fiction elements, places them in contemporary English settings, most of them pastoral, and uses the incongruities as a backdrop for a touching story of love and identity in the face of a dark destiny.

In Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek, screenplay by Alex Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, an English boarding school called Hailsham, housed in a sprawling stone manor in the country, controls the upbringing of “orphaned” children chosen for a special function. In the quiet, somewhat slow first third of the movie, young Kathy H. (Izzy Meikle-Small) must suppress her affection for Tommy (Charile Rowe), an awkward, slow-witted lad who’s nevertheless rather cute in a disheveled, baggy-trousers, preppie sort of way. Kathy suffers as she watches her best friend, Ruth (Ella Purnell), win Tommy’s affection before she can.

At Hailsham, Headmistress Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) keeps a tight ship. The kids file off to bed with a cup of vitamins and a small bottle of milk, their artwork is examined and collected by Madame (Nathalie Richard), and the children’s favorite occasion involves a pathetic flea market stocked with a “bumper crop” of castoff, broken odds and ends they purchase with buttons and plastic tokens.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Let Me In

In Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), a twelve-year-old boy named Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road) lives in fear of a sadistic school bully. Sadder still is Owen’s life because his mother is divorced, she drinks to anaesthetize, and she isn’t around very much. On top of that Owen lives in a shabby apartment complex outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. (Can Los Alamos be as shabby and dismal as this movie seems to suggest?) Here he loiters all alone in the snow-covered courtyard where the playground jungle-gym bars mirror the pattern of the Rubik’s cube he plays with to pass the time. Then new residents arrive: a twelve-year-old girl named Amy (Chloë Grace Moretz of Kickass) accompanied by a slouching, dried up old “Father” (Richard Jenkins) who seems enslaved by this little girl’s needs. When Owen and Amy develop a tender, warm relationship, and Amy emboldens Owen to stand up to the bully, we get one of the most touching portrayals of young love I have seen in a long time. That Amy is a vampire adds terror to poignancy in a film that gripped me and got my full attention more than any other movie in the past two months.

After the blood-sucking overkill of Daybreakers, I swore I was done with vampire movies, but I was glad I let this one in, mostly because of the touching interactions between Smit-McPhee, who makes Owen’s courage and character belie his pale face and scrawny build, and Moretz, whose soft tones and large, wan eyes express Amy’s initial weariness with Owen’s neediness but eventually express the love for him she needs at this point in her immortality.

Set mostly in the derelict apartment complex that stands as an unreal world separated from the real world where a police detective (Elias Koteas), disheveled and haggard, tries to solve the mystery of bloody deaths he calls “ritual slayings,” the fact that Amy is a vampire just seems part of the deal. With a mournful score, the film succeeds at disturbing you while it touches you with Smit-McPhee and Moretz’s performances. Disturbing indeed is the mystery surrounding the identity of Amy’s “Father” and how he came to be enslaved as a blood collector for his “daughter.”

Playing straight with vampire lore, Let Me In stays away from Twilight silliness. Direct sunlight doesn’t make a vampire sparkle; it engulfs them in flames. Daytime is strictly off limits. Whereas renditions of Dracula depict the vampire lord merely snarling at the blood droplets coming from a human visitor’s accident with cutlery or razor, Amy's reaction to the blood dripping from Owen's cut hand is a chilling, stomach-churning scene of unbridled vampire bloodlust.

What works best here is the story of star-crossed lovers that plays out as fantasy in the most dismal, other worldly apartment complex I've ever seen, as well as in a negligent school mostly presided over by an unshaven gym teacher with a Hungarian accent. Silliness results from a scene ruined by poor make-up as well as from an ill-conceived resolution, but all is made worth while by a gripping scene in which “Father” stages a kidnapping that goes wrong and ends up in a violent car wreck during which you never see the other cars, and a glorious scene of orgasmic bloodletting that is exhilarating wish-fulfillment for anyone who has ever lived in fear of schoolyard bullying.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

ADD AS FRIEND/ IGNORE: The Social Network

David Fincher’s The Social Network starts out with a lot of words. In rapid-fire run-on sentences that fill most of the lengthy opening scene, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) talks his way into a break-up with girlfriend Erica Albright (Mara Rooney) … and talks and talks, revealing himself as tactless and insensitive and spurring him on to the blog tirade that leads him to the invention of a who’s-the-hotter-coed website that reels in thousands of visitors and burns out Harvard’s network - that leads him to meeting the preppie Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer/ Josh Pence) with their idea for an exclusive Harvard student site - that leads him to the invention of Facebook - that leads to alienating himself from financial backer and best friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) - that leads to two lawsuits seeking a share of the bountiful profits gleaned by this facelift of the Internet social scene.

In this cause and effect chain of events, Fincher moves the action along expeditiously but I never felt a gripping sense of witnessing a clever invention that gave birth to an Internet revolution. Zuckerberg gets an idea. He runs across the campus. He modifies the site to include relationship status. Meanwhile, the ongoing rising toll of subscribers is supposed to generate suspense, but that's as gripping as watching the growing prize total of a state lottery for which you haven’t bought a ticket. “Refresh,” says promoter Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) when the running total of subscribers nears a million in the oh-so-cool offices of Facebook. Don’t hackers know when to hit “refresh”?

The Social Network is about motives. Saverin clearly wants the money he deserves after being betrayed by his best friend. The Winklevoss twins want to assuage the bitterness they feel from missing out on an invention they think was their idea. They don’t like coming in second, which is clearly shown in the flashy, noisily staged scene in which the talented rowers come in a close second at the Henley-on-Thames Regatta. As for Zuckerberg, as he slouches and doodles and jokes sardonically throughout two different lawsuits, it’s clear that his motive has never been money. His motive has been doing what he knows how to do best, and doing it better than anyone else.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

One Scene in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a flawed movie. Gordon Gekko gets out of prison, turns ruthless money-monger once again, and then turns loving family man. Meanwhile, at times, the movie becomes a Michael Moore-type muckraking documentary about the excesses of the economic collapse. Perhaps that’s the film Oliver Stone wanted to make.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is also a silly movie. Stone uses children’s soap bubbles as a symbol of the recent bursting of the economic bubble. A mere glimpse of this image might have been clever. But the camera follows a single bubble up and up and up, making sure we get the point of this simplistic symbolism, and the bubbles come back AGAIN at the end of the movie. Also, the cameo appearances of Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, his face pasty, his acting horrid, and of Oliver Stone himself as a sort of documentary-style talking head, are simply ludicrous.

Any strength in this film can be found in some of the cinematography (a shot of the Empire State Building through nighttime mist that is to die for) and in the performances of Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan. As Jake Moore, a hotshot investor who is snared by the allure of the devious Gordon Gekko, LaBeouf proves he can take on a mature roll and that he is not just an unlikely boyfriend for Jennifer Fox in an action movie with more explosions than World War II. As Winnie Gekko, Gordon’s estranged daughter, Jake’s social activist fiancé, Mulligan negotiates a tricky role with conviction and presence.

But the purpose of this post is not to analyze this film as a whole, partly because I am at a loss when it comes to explaining the economic strategies employed by characters to ruin other characters. I’m not a Wall Street expert – never have been. In fact, I wasn’t a big fan of the original Wall Street, and I would be unable to explain exactly what Gekko and Bud Fox do to make thier big bucks. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the economic chicanery is even more elusively explained. All I can say is big bad Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin, ruins poor old Louis Zabel, played by Frank Langella, and then Jake turns around and tries to ruin James, and then Gekko ruins James, but I can’t explain how they do it. How money works is a mystery to me probably because I don’t have enough to worry about the clever tricks I could be doing with it if I had it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Three in a Row: The Town, Easy A, and Devil

Friday: The Town

Ben Affleck’s The Town uses Charlestown, Massachusetts, as a refreshingly new location, with Bunker Hill Monument and the rundown streets of this blue collar neighborhood as backdrops. Achieving something very challenging these days, it even delivers a rather gripping car chase. As Bullitt uses the hills of San Francisco to pump up its chase, The Town uses the narrow colonial streets of Charlestown, many of them one way and choked with parked cars, all of them terminating in a tight turn onto a perpendicular street, and none of them going anywhere that makes sense.

But after bank robber Doug MacRay (Affleck) establishes a rather unlikely romantic liaison with a traumatized robbery witness/bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the film fills out the rest of its length by borrowing from Michael Mann’s Heat to a shameful extent: the tight-knit gang that pulls off heists like clockwork and leaves no evidence; the dogged FBI agent obsessed with nabbing the bad guys; the woman in love with the gang leader who is shocked by the truth but willing to forgive; the surveillance shots of the gang members relaxing and funning at a family dinner; the single mother (wonderfully played by Blake Lively as a busty, dope-head sleaze) whose custody of her child is threatened by the FBI to force her to sell out the gang; and even the pulsating musical notes that accompany the massive gun battle in the streets – that starts in the same way with a desperate gang member blazing away at the SWAT team.

In The Town the energy and the choreography of its set piece gun battle inside and outside Fenway Park delivers some gripping moments, but ultimately it's an overblown attempt to outdo Heat that fails to achieve the same intensity.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Battle of the Pyramids

If you could make a movie on any subject, novel, play, or historical event, what would it be? Inspired by a novel I read recently set during Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt and by the stunningly exotic image of French infantry squares pitted against hordes of Mameluke cavalry charging across the desert with the Pyramids of Giza as a backdrop (as depicted above) - I would love to see a sweeping historical epic about this event.

Troops in an alien land. The invasion of a desert country. Fighting insurgents in the streets of a Muslim city. The contemporary parallels are obvious. Also, a grand chance for an up and coming actor to play the young Napoleon. The novel I read - Napoleon's Pyramids, by William Dietrich - is much like an Indiana Jones adventure full of cliffhangers and action. The protagonist, Ethan Gage, is an American opportunist who dabbles in science and solves riddles of antiquity much like Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nic Cage; Gates - Cage - Gage! Ah, ha!) in National Treasure and Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code. He is also a crack shot with his custom-made flintlock rifle and he is an inveterate Casanova. The publisher bills him as "our Indiana Jones-like hero," but one character refers to him as "a dilettante, a hanger-on, a dabbler, a wanderer." In a movie verion, Robert Downey, Jr. would be the perfect actor to fill the role of Ethan Gage.

Told in the first person with a style similar to Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, Napoleon's Pyramids covers Gage's adventures in battle and bed with vivid historical detail and a very entertaining sense of humor. In the sequel, The Rosetta Key, Gage witnesses Napoleon's 1799 invasion of the Holy Land and participates in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. An episode set in the ancient ruins of Petra seems blatantly borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In the latest installment, The Dakota Cipher, he travels across the Great Lakes to the Dakotas in 1800 with a Norseman searching for Thor's hammer.

All three novels are very well researched, especially the military history, and although they involve too many secret doorways and forgotten underground chambers, as in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and include yawn-inducing cataloguing of the rites and beliefs of the Masons and the Templar Knights, as in Dan Brown's books, the vivid prose (unusual for a Da Vinci Code spinoff series), humor, history, and action, both military and of the amorous kind, keep you engaged throughout.

An adaptation of Napoleon's Pyramids would make a fun adventure movie, but I'd prefer to see an epic depiction of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, the Battle of the Pyramids, and the Battle of the Nile, in which Lord Nelson's navy destroyed Napoleon's navy and trapped Napoleon in Egypt.

(Painting by Louis Lejeune. Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Loved The Godfather - Hated Animal Kingdom

My mother was a movie lover back in the Golden Age of American Cinema. During the 1930s and 1940s, often for as little as a nickel, my mother went from single-screen theater to theater to see, as she puts it, “great movies every time.” Imagine going to the movies in 1939 and seeing Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, Beau Geste, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and Goodbye Mr. Chips - only to name a few. Movie heaven!

But at 88, with excellent health other than a little high blood pressure, my mother, avid moviegoer and voracious reader, has been dealt one of life’s cruel ironies in the form of macular degeneration. She lives on her own – in the house where I grew up in San Mateo, California – by means of peripheral vision, but everything else is a blur. She can’t distinguish faces. She differentiates between people by identifying clothing, especially shoes. She can’t read books. She can’t write letters. In a region with limited public transportation, she can’t drive.

“Watching” Larry King on CNN is a favorite pastime. All she has to do is listen. She has also listened to many books on CD, but for someone who was never very techno-savvy when her vision was perfect, operating her little portable CD player is an on-going challenge. If you’re experienced with a particular machine, you can probably do it blindfolded. As an experiment, I blindfolded myself and inserted and played a DVD successfully after some initial fumbling. But for someone who never manipulated technology, a CD player and a DVD player are nightmares. She runs through countless batteries because she forgets to turn off the CD player. After much coaching, she always forgets to press play when the DVD menu appears. “It keeps playing the theme to Lawrence of Arabia over and over again. I think something’s wrong with the tape… I mean the CD… I mean the DVD.”

Even though playing DVDs is a major source of frustration, my mother still tries. My wife patiently renews her Netflix account after each time my mother gives up on DVDs and says the struggle isn’t worth the five dollars per month. But my mother has enjoyed some movies on Netflix: North Face (subtitled in English but she understands German) and The Young Victoria (she loves historical epics).

Going to the movies is a problem. She loved March of the Penguins because she could see the penguins: mostly black against the white Antarctic. (Actually, I closed my eyes and snoozed during that movie and I could still see penguins.) She has to sit up front, and she can’t see anything if the scene is dark. But for the most part, it’s not worth the effort for her because there’s nothing out there that delivers the satisfaction she got from the Hollywood classics or David Lean epics she loves.

Nevertheless, when I went to California for two weeks this summer, I decided to try taking her to the movies.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Shoot Kill Drink Coffee - The American

As does Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, the mysterious Jack/Edward (George Clooney) in The American goes to a small hilltop town in Italy hoping to change his life. He eats and drinks wine; he doesn’t pray, but he is befriended by the town priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who serves him lamb stew; and he visits a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) and gradually falls in love with her. Unlike Ms. Gilbert, however, Jack is not disappointed with his marriage. Jack is beginning to regret the moral cost of his job as a gunsmith making lightweight, concealable rifles for professional assassins, and he wants to stop his involvement in the killing, both indirectly by making guns and directly by self-defense – which sometimes means killing a “friend” to hide his identity.

With its picturesque Italian setting and its very European pacing and tone, Anton Corbijn’s The American echoes at least two other films with similar European tone: The Day of the Jackal (1973) and Behold a Pale Horse (1964), both directed by Fred Zinneman. Like the nameless assassin for hire (Edward Fox) in Jackal, Jack is a sophisticated professional who kills swiftly. Also like the Jackal, he expertly modifies a rifle to make it concealable, he tests it in the Italian countryside, and he provides explosive bullets. Like Manuel Artiguez (Gregory Peck) in Behold a Pale Horse, he is an outlaw suffering a midlife crisis and hiding in a small European town. Jack is tired of the killing and he wants this job to be his last, modifying a rifle for a sexy, leggy female assassin (Thekla Reuten). Similar to The American as well, both these films have a tone that make you feel the European atmosphere.

At the center of the story, Jack kills, seemingly, without remorse to protect his identity. He hides in a peaceful Italian town, a grim, soulless loner who sits in vacant cafes or austere rooms that suggest the emptiness in his life. Throughout, George Clooney sets his jaw, glowers darkly, and acts the part, but as the ruthless killer, he is never convincing. He merely seems to be going through the motions, setting his jaw and glowering darkly. But Clooney’s discomfort with the character of Jack, the bad guy, could easily stem from a screenplay that does little to develop Jack’s backstory. We know what Jack does; we know he wants to change his life; and we know he is falling in love with Clara, but other than that we know nothing about him. Jack seems devoid of a soul until Clara's earnest love for him wakes up a glimmer of it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Last Exorcism - The Last Example of Video Vérité, I Hope

As video vérité in the guise of a documentary, I found The Last Exorcism rather engaging for half of its length. I enjoyed the performance of Patrick Fabian as evangelical minister Cotton Marcus – especially when he turns and winks at the camera to reveal the sham of his ministry and the fake exorcism he performs for a wad of cash. As Cotton repeatedly draws attention to the camera through which we are supposedly seeing this story, the Blair Witch Project nature of this film works.

But when the film draws attention to this genre as pure artifice by including the non-diegetic musical score Film Doctor notes in his review, and rooms are perfectly lit for a spooky movie, the whole approach seems unnecessary and merely an attempt to piggy-back on the success of Paranormal Activity, as well as The Fourth Kind, which I found vastly superior to PA.

Yet this musical score comes before the film genuinely establishes a creepy Louisiana backwoods atmosphere complete with simple-minded, rock-chucking brother Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) and an equally creepy performance by Ashley Bell as Nell, the weirdly innocent, isolated, home-schooled girl who creates paper-cutout pictures of fictional Biblical-like scenes and displays them on her bedroom wall. In her girly dress, naive to the point of near imbecility, Nell shows a fascination for the sound boom operator's cool boots in one of the most unsettling moments in the film.

But after a literal U-turn in which Cotton heads back to the farm, a ridiculous climactic scene echoes Rosemary’s Baby and every schlocky horror movie about Satanic rites in the woods, and the video vérité approach again is pointless. Here, the film seems to want to beef up the special effects and the breadth of the action and be like any horror film with a standard point of view. Indeed, The Last Exorcism might have been better off this way. When it abandons some nice subtlety achieved by Ashley Bell’s performance and some effectively lit shots in the barn, outside in front of the house, and in the girl’s bedroom, it felt like the video camera approach was constraining the film’s urge to abandon subtlety and get down and demonic.

As Film Doctor also noted, the movie tries to incorporate heady questions about faith and religion. Says Cotton in the beginning, "In order to believe in God, you have to believe in demons." Well, you know, I kind of believe that because the Catholic grade school I attended piled on the Satanic lore along with the Jesus stories and a whole cataloguing of a vast array of sins and rather graphic descriptions of where you would go if you died in a state of sin. Much like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, I do, I do, I do believe in devils. At least, I’m not going to declare one dark night that I don’t.

Thus, I found that old demon encyclopedia Cotton totes around rather fascinating. It got me wondering who thought up all that demon mythology. Medieval scribes assigned to scare peasants into allegiance to the Catholic Church? What a sick imagination! I've had enough childhood exposure to demonology to be scared by the movie's subtle bits - like Nell huddled on top of her wardrobe - and I like how the story seems to be leaving us with mysteries, one involving incest, before the fateful U-turn. No need for the documentary artifice, no need for the Satanic rites around the bonfire - just a need for consistently artistic atmosphere and intelligently subtle suspense. Show more creativity. The Medieval scribes did.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The isms in Eat Pray Love

by guest writer Mary

[A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me to drop her off to see Step Up 3D, so I decided to take in Eat Pray Love at the same time until I walked into the lobby and encountered a little women’s group of five or six mothers of recent seniors I had taught in A.P. English. (No, they were not members of a Book Club who had read the bestselling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert; as it turns out, they were rather giggly Javier Bardem fans.) Wanting a little space from reminders of school during the last weeks of summer vacation, I instantly changed my plan and decided to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but that movie wasn’t starting for twenty minutes so I went to sit with my daughter and watch the previews before her show.

Up comes a preview for Scott Pilgrim and it looks dumb so I quickly get up, deciding to sneak into Eat Pray Love which had already started. Standing in the dark for about fifteen minutes, I gave up after Billy Crudup as Stephen announces to his wife that he wants to further his education, maybe become a teacher, and teary-eyed Julia Roberts as Liz gets down on her knees and begs God to deliver her from this marriage. Quick! Back to Scott Pilgrim, which had just started. And I rather enjoyed it. I had thought I was done with Michael Cera’s pervading persona, but here he is quite endearing, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is engaging as the girl of his dreams. A fun portrayal of 20-something angst in our time – though the fight scenes go on too long.

Anyway, this is all in the way of relating how I did not see Eat Pray Love, and that my wife, Mary, did see Eat Pray Love, wrote a review of it, and offers it here as her writing debut on Little Worlds. So, without further preamble, welcome Mary to this blog and enjoy her review. - Hokahey]

I have to confess that I have not read the book on which the film Eat Pray Love is based. Therefore, if I have a quarrel with it, I am not sure whether my quarrel is with the book or the film. Word is that the film is a pretty faithful adaptation. Apparently the book was very popular, and the movie is proving so as well, earning 23 million on its opening weekend; currently it is # 2 at the box office.

To me, the film raises some interesting questions about various “isms” – sexism, racism, and classism.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Yes!" Moment #10

Well, I guess I had to do an even 10 before ending this series (for a while at least). As explained here at "Yes!" Moment #1, I have posted moments randomly without any sort of rating in mind, but I must say the moment I consider one of the very best moments in cinema – a very intense moment – and I like intense! "No prisoners! No prisoners!"

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is not only a visually spectacular historical epic, it is a disturbing portrait of war and the effects of war on the human psyche. This is clearly and dramatically seen when Lawrence is faced with a crucial dilemma: avoid a crumbling Turkish column and push on to Damascus or exact revenge for the massacre of an Arab village. That Lawrence chooses violence is effectively developed by Lean’s masterful direction. This is one of the most intense scenes in any movie – and it is a Yes! Moment of effective cinematography and fine acting. Just look at Peter O’Toole’s face. Look at the anguish in his face. Look at his eyes. What power there is in theater and the (relatively) permanent capturing of theatrical moments in the medium of film!